CINCINNATI – He hadn’t been the long snapper in a game that mattered since high school nine seasons ago.
He said he hadn’t had this big of a postgame media crowd around him ever as an NFL player.
Neither of those facts boded well for Mitchell Wilcox or his Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday in a wild, season-opening, 23-20, overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Paycor Stadium.
Being the long snapper – especially on point-after attempts and field goals – means being part of a three-man operation that requires steely nerves and timing down to the fraction of a second.
As for media attention, a long snapper never gets any unless there is a problem.
When things are going well, all the focus is on the kicker.
And therein lay the rub Sunday.
Evan McPherson – “Money Mac” as the Bengals call him for his clutch kicking that made him the talk of the NFL in the team’s run to the Super Bowl last season – had his game-winning, extra point kick blocked near the end of regulation and then missed a game-winning 29-yard field goal in overtime.
Last year during the playoffs he set an NFL record for most field goals (14) made without a miss.
Early in Sunday’s game it looked like he was going to continue with the heroics when he hit a 59-yarder that broke the Bengals all-time distance record.
The field goal mark he broke – 58 yards – was his too from his rookie season last year.
The 59-yard kick came with Kevin Huber as his holder and Clark Harris –a 14-year veteran – as the long snapper.
But when Harris suffered a biceps injury in the fourth quarter, Wilcox had a good idea what that meant.
“My heart went out to him,” Wilcox said. “He’s been such a solid snapper for so long and has had such a great career. It was tough to see him go down. And even tougher to see how upset he was on the sideline.”
The Bengals do have one other long snapper on the roster – rookie Cal Adomitis – but he was on the inactive list for Sunday’s game.
That sent special teams coach Darrin Simmons to Wilcox, who had been a long snapper at Tarpon Springs High School in Florida and then was listed as the back-up long snapper at the University of South Florida, though he was never called on to do it over five seasons.
He was too valuable as a kick-protection tight end on special teams and even more important to the offense, where he broke all of USF’s season and career records for receptions, yards and touchdowns by a tight end.
The Bengals trailed the entire game Sunday, but finally, in a wild finish, quarterback Joe Burrow hit Ja’Marr Chase on a 6-yard TD pass with two seconds left in regulation to tie the game, 20-20.
Normally, the victory kick would have been but a formality, but as Wilcox trotted out to make the snap, there was a bit of a delay. As he stood there waiting, a few of the Steelers linemen began to taunt him and try to rattle him.
“Oh yeah, they did,” Wilcox sad. “But that’s football.”
Although he thought he made a “pretty good” snap, it came back slow and a bit high and those extra milliseconds for Huber to get the ball down gave Steelers free safety Minkak Fitzpatrick – who already intercepted Burrow on the quarterback’s first pass attempt of the season and ran it back for a 31-yard touchdown – time to lunge in and block the kick.
As the game went into overtime, it seemed a distinct possibility the Bengals would need another kick to win because Burrow was struggling like he never before had as a pro. He had a career-high four interceptions and lost a fumble.
On the sideline, Wilcox said he’d tried to focus on the task at hand and then McPherson -- being very “Evan McPherson-esque” – came over and started to joke with him.
“You surely remember last year in the playoffs, he joked on the sidelines before he kicked the game winner,” he said with a smile.
But with 3:37 left in overtime and the Bengals facing third down at the Pittsburgh 11, coach Zac Taylor decided to go with the chip shot field goal.
With the Steelers again jawing at him, Wilcox snapped the ball high, Huber pulled it down, but the timing was ruined, and McPherson missed to the left.
Afterward McPherson took the blame and said Wilcox had been fine.
Wilcox, though, took responsibility for the last snap, even though the only time he did snap a ball since high school was in the East West All Star Game in 2019.
And yet this moment didn’t hurt as much – physically at least – as did a freak occurrence when he showcased his skills to pro scouts at the NFL Combine in February of 2020.
During the gauntlet drill – where a tight end runs across the width of the field and has balls thrown at him every few strides – he got hit flush in the face by a hard thrown spiral.
Although it broke blood vessels in his left eyes and left him wobbled, he kept running and caught the last three passes thrown at him.
Although he wasn’t drafted, the Bengals signed him as a free agent.
They liked how he rose to the moment then and in training camp.
And now Wilcox will have to do it again.